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During our Australia Day family lunch Waltzing Matilda came up among the collection of background music and prompted quite a discussion, especially from my two grandson’s girlfriends.

My brood have been raised on a diet of Australiana history and anecdotes so the questions have come mainly from the girlfriends who are both city raised born and bred Australian girls.

It occurred to me that their questions might also be questions in the minds of many other city bred youth and would be a good topic for Possum Nana’s sessions with her information hungry group of youngsters. The context of it is something that we older ones take for granted but I suspect that many are not aware that the story behind the song is a true story recorded first hand by its author, Banjo Patterson.

For starters the main questions raised were “What is a Coolabah tree?” “What is a billabong” and what is a “swagman?” Here are some answers.

A coolabah tree is a species of gum tree which occurs naturally in the warmer parts of inland Australia on flood prone country that is not inundated often enough to support river red gums.

The Historic Coolabah Tree is situated past the causeway on the right as you head to the Hughenden Showgrounds. It is of immense historical importance as it is linked to two relief expeditions searching for the Burke and Wills Expedition. Both expeditions blazed the tree on the banks of what is now Station Creek.

In 1861 Fredrick Walker led a team from Rockhampton to the Gulf searching in vain for the missing explorers. The following year Landsborough's search party passed through from the Gulf. These relief expeditions led people to become aware of the fertility and wealth of the plains adjacent to the Flinders River.

Truly this tree should be preserved as a memorial to the brave explorers of this land. Two plaques have been erected near the tree as a tribute to them.

A billabong is a water hole that was formerly a bend in a river but cut off when the course of the river changes. Its water is replenished by floods.

A billabong can form when a river changes its course, cutting off a section and leaving behind a large body of water, similar to a lake. It usually only occurs after rain floods the river and nearby region. Eventually, the river water breaks through the base of the loop, and an extra water section is formed. Billabongs can also form from pools of water accruing after a large flood.

Rainwater continues to restore the billabong from rain and nearby rivers. The area stays fresh and supports a copiousness amount of wildlife.

A swagman is an itinerant labourer, usually very poor, who travels on foot from farm to farm looking for casual work or a handout. He carries a bed-roll which also contains most of his worldly possessions and when rolled up is carried across his back. The bed-roll is called a swag, hence swag man. In America he would be called tramp. It is very rare to see a swagman today as our social security system provides them with sustenance.

 Down on his luck

In the 19th century when swagmen were common features of rural Australia, there was a large surplus of men. Resulting from this and the itinerant nature of their lifestyles, swagmen never got married and a nick-name was given to the swag. It was called Matilda after an imaginary woman that the swagman would never meet. To expand the mirage when a swagman went walking on his track this was called waltzing Matilda pretending that he was dancing with the wife he would never have.

The story behind the song, as written by Banjo is basically true but slightly embellished for artistic purposes.

It begins in the days of the great shearers’ strike of 1891 to 1894 when mobs of striking shearers set fire to shearing sheds on the big sheep stations in NSW and Queensland which employed non-union shearers.

The scene is at a property called Dagworth Station, a large sheep property near Winton in Queensland. The property was the scene of an armed battle in September, 1894 between 16 striking shearers and the station owners, the McPherson family. The woolshed was burnt to the ground and 140 lambs were burned to death.

When the police arrived the body of one of the attackers was discovered among the debris. It was the body of Samuel “French” Hoffmeister, the “jolly swagman” who was supposed to have committed suicide in the billabong. The billabong has been identified as the Combo waterhole at Kynuna Station near Winton. His grave, marked with a stone cairn, is located near the billabong on the south side of the Diamantina River. The three policemen involved were Snr. Constables Austin Cafferty (420), Michael Daly (89) and Const. Robert Dyer (175). The numbers are their police badge numbers. 

 

Hoffmeister’s dead body was found with a gunshot wound near the billabong where the shearers were camped. It has not been confirmed whether the gunshot wound was inflicted during the battle or was self-inflicted as suicide following a bout of remorse for what he had done.The story of his suicide by drowning in the waterhole is a myth. Let’s call it poetic licence.

Banjo Paterson was a friend of Bob McPherson, one of the owners of Dagworth Station. In January, 1895, 14 weeks after the incident, Banjo was invited to stay at the station as a guest together with hisfiancé of 8 years, Sarah Riley. There he met Bob’s 21 year old sister, Christina.

Banjo and Christina developed an attraction for each other as they worked together on the creation of the famous song “Waltzing Matilda”.  Sarah was from a respectable pioneer family from Western Victoria and in April, 1894 Christine was visiting the Riley family to attend the annual steeplechase at the Warrnambool races. Christina was taken by the Scottish tune Craigilee which she heard being played by the band at the races.

 

When Bob told Banjo of the story of the burning of the Dagworth woolshed he started to put together poem about it and Christina was developing the tune to suit it on her zither, there being no piano at Dagworth.

Banjo began flirting with Christina and amidst a hotbed of passion and jealousy was exposed as a cad and told to pack his bags and return to Brisbane. The two women involved were very upset and the engagement between Banjo and Sarah was broken off. Neither woman ever married.

In the second part of Banjo’s complete works Song of the Pen, published in 1983, at page 500 there is a transcript of an interview Banjo gave on the ABC Radio Talk programme in 1930. In it he describes his stay at Dagworth Station and the transcript is recorded as follows:-

 “The shearers staged a strike by way of expressing themselves and McPherson’s woolshed at Dagworth was burnt down and a man picked up dead”.

Banjo goes further on to say:-

 “And here a personal reminiscence may be worth recording. While resting for lunch, Miss McPherson played a little Scottish tune on a zither. I put words to the tune and called it Waltzing Matilda”.

Today Dagworth Station no longer carries any sheep. It was purchased by the North Australian Pastoral Company in 1995. Its 28,000 sheep have been replaced by cattle and 130 years of wool growing has passed into history preserved by Banjo’s famous poem and song.

Combo waterhole is about 150 kms North West of Winton. I have been passed there in daylight and did not hear any ghosts. Had I been there at night things may have been different. 

There is an inconsistency over the exact fate of Hoffmeister’s demise. On the one hand Bob McPherson stated that there was a dead body among the debris of the burnt woolshed. It was said to be that of Hoffmeister. On the other hand it is claimed that his dead body was discovered at Combo waterhole with a gunshot wound.

The only logical explanation for this is that he was killed in the gunfight at the woolshed. The shearers then collected his body and returned it with them to their camp at Combo waterhole for burial. The station owners and police were following the shearers and caught up with them before they had time to bury the body. The explanation that he committed suicide in a fit of remorse is only a supposition, never a reported fact. I doubt if any shearer would have any pang of remorse over the incineration of 140 lambs. Further, the police presence would be explained either by way of them being part of the chasing posse, or, having been called to investigate the presence of a dead body with a gunshot wound. 

My belief is that the police were part of the pursuing party and either instigated or condoned the burial on site due to its remoteness.

This is part 2 in our series. Read Part 1 below.  

https://patriotrealm.com/index.php/3380-australia-born-on-the-sheep-s-back-and-the-sweat-of-the-shearer

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